Once Highway 120 and the prosaic sights of this city — the cemetery, the auto wrecker, the ranch houses with laundry strung out back — slowly recede, once power lines give way to almond orchards against the beige foothills, once the creak and lurch and clatter of steel wheels on rails replace the auditory intrusion of car horns and rumbling big rigs, only then does it feel as if you truly are traveling back in time on a thoroughly outmoded form of transportation.
The good thing is, even puttering along at a paltry 12 mph, it doesn’t take long for the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train to leave civilization behind.
You can sit back in a refurbished art deco dining car, let the reverberant motion lull you into reverie as you clatter on the old 1897 logging rail line heading 16 miles eastward to Warnerville, where the rail scenes from “High Noon” were filmed in 1952. You can nurse a vodka gimlet as you watch the pink-tinged sun set over rolling hills studded with gnarled oak trees. You can unfurl the cloth napkin and dine on locally sourced entrees. Then, about the time the waitresses serve the blueberry tart with fruit that chef Jeff Kearns picked from along the tracks outside Oakdale, you clatter back to Oakdale and make it home in time to watch the late news.
And, on certain nights, you can be entertained by a tongue-in-cheek “murder mystery” theater performance, in which the actors struggle to emote with impressive volubility while being jerked about by the motion and groans of the train.
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For three hours on a weekend night (or brunch trains), says Sierra Railroad general manager Randy McTaggart, “we slow the world down for you.”
Those of a certain age, such as Jack Vosch, 76, and his mother, Natalie Bonney, 93, ride on a wave of nostalgia. Those of a tender age, such as teenager Katie Osman, come aboard for the novelty factor, akin to actually talking into a rotary-dial telephone. And those of middle age, old enough to vaguely remember Pullman cars but mostly familiar only with sterile, stupifying Amtrak, are looking for something different for a night out.
“I looked online,” said Cece Gonzales, of Layton, south of Fresno. “I’ve never been on a train. I figured, why not?”
Whatever the motivation, dinner trains have proved to be a popular “destination” dining experience in Northern California. The Sierra Dinner Train has been chugging along its foothill route since 1999, and similar rail excursions, such as the Sacramento River Train from Woodland to West Sacramento, and the Napa Valley Wine Trains, are well established even as historic railroad tracks are increasingly being pulled up for development.
The Sierra route is special because it runs along a stretch of one of the oldest tracks still in use — which, beyond the Warnerville turnaround, eventually leads to the State Historic Railtown Park in Jamestown. Because the line uses the original tracks, albeit greatly refurbished, you actually get the feel, at times a visceral, gut-wrenching feel, of what it was like to travel back in the day. Which is to say, you can get jostled and your libation of choice might slosh if you don’t hold on.
But that’s part of the experience, a big reason why you’re paying $59 or $69 for this moveable feast. Besides, even if the operators of the rail line wanted to smooth out the ride, they couldn’t do it.
“We keep the tracks to exactly historical standards of when they were built,” McTaggart said. “If you look at railroads nowadays, you could have five miles of continuous iron (tracks). When this track was built, it was 33- to 38-foot lengths of iron, coupled together. So when the wheels go over it it, well, lore is, you hear the ‘clickety-clack’ sound. Every time the wheel goes over the coupling, the track buckles a bit. That gives you the movement of the train. We want to keep the history alive in that sense of it. We could go a little faster, but we don’t see the reason why.”
Because of its pokey pace, it takes 90 minutes for the train to reach Warnerville. The route is such that the train has the capability of reaching Jamestown and beyond on this line but, as McTaggart said, “we figured that three hours is about as long as you can keep people captive.”
With a four-course meal, a well-stocked bar and the murder mystery to delightfully distract, no one on a recent dinner train seemed bored. In fact, unlike a commuter train on which people stare at screens, are buried in books or grooving to a beat behind ear buds, passengers actually interacted. They talked. They laughed. They exchanged stories with couples across the aisle.
My, that was a throwback.
The Diazes, Bob and Lilly, were seated with Gonzales and partner Marcellino Valdez. What began as the smallest of awkward small talk (“So, where did you grow up?”) eventually transformed into an exchange of animated anecdotes. They would occasionally lob conversational volleys across the aisle to Vosch and Bonney, who were more than happy to share. In fact, that’s what Vosch, who lives in Gig Harbor, Wash., was hoping for.
“It’s kind of like going back in the past and taking a slower look at things, seeing the countryside without worrying about driving,” he said. “It’s a slower place. You get on and hopefully have some good conversation, just like the old days.”
Bonney rode the rails when these same coaches were new — 60 or 70 years ago.
“My husband, who was from Porterville, worked for the railroad for a long time, right after he got out of high school,” she said. “He used to climb the lines and told me all about how fun it was to ride those (hand) cars. He loved it.”
Not everyone aboard was so steeped in memories. Steve and Jackie Abreu, of the East Bay suburb of Dublin, had only ever ridden Amtrak from Oakland to Sacramento. Nothing to wax nostalgic about there. But their granddaughter, Raina, was turning 17 and being interested in theater, wanted to see the show.
“But this train is interesting,” she said. “It reminds me of old movies.”
While the train’s exterior — silver on top, blue on the bottom with sporty yellow trim — doesn’t necessarily harken to the golden age of film, the art deco interior delivers. Burnished wood paneling lines the walls, illuminated by vintage ornate sconces. The seats are upholstered with brown and golden velvet and, when the sun is setting, it infused the car with a warm glow. What McTaggart doesn’t tell most people, perhaps not wanting to break the spell, is that car in which the dinner train passenger ride actually came from the Long Island Railroad from the 1950s.
“It was an old commuter coach that sat about 200 people, with about 6 inches between the seats for leg room,” he said. “We completely gutted the inside and basically rebuilt it to have the look we wanted.”
The scenery beyond Oakdale plays its part to perfection, as well. Rolling, honey-hued grassland still dominates, though in recent years almond orchards have proliferated to such an extent that McTaggart calls them “the new gold rush of our decade.” But even the incursion of farms and the occasional vineyard has not completely domesticated the ride. The sighting of a lone coyote loping along the hillock in the gathering dark drew excited comments from the passengers, awkward because it briefly drew attention away from the murder-mystery scene playing out.
A ‘mystery’ aboard
Such is the quaint pleasure of the dinner experience that you almost forget that, between courses, a four-person troupe performs an intentionally over-the-top mystery in which actors occasionally break character and interact with passengers. It’s all very light fare, heavy on cliché and improvisation — no one came expecting Ibsen or a Pinter drama — and the worse the overacting, the more enthusiastic the audience response.
The list of characters consists of the frowsy, wisecracking, avaricious stepmother, Cheyenne, and her fatuous son, Chip; the faux-debonair, avaricious Alfie and his spoiled niece, Kat. The premise is that Kat and Chip are getting married so that two struggling computer companies can merge, immediately after which Kat will die from an allergic reaction to “blue roses.” The plot really doesn’t matter; the audience is so close to the action that people are rapt.
When, off-stage, the “preacher” runs away with the “bridesmaid,” the cast members scour the train for a replacement.
Which on this run led the character Alfie directly to Vosch, who suddenly found himself an accidental thespian.
“Sir, do you believe the Oakland A’s are gonna make it to the World Series?” Alfie asked Vosch, who, remember, is from Washington.
“No. I’m not an Oakland fan.”
“OK, do you believe the San Francisco Giants are going to make it to the World Series?”
The train erupted in laughter. It’s not that Vosch wasn’t playing along. Rather, his allegiance was elsewhere.
“OK, let’s talk to football,” Alfie said, exasperated. “Do you believe the 49ers are — ”
Vosch cut him off.
“No, the Seattle Seahawks.”
To which Cheyenne piped up, “We can’t have a preacher who’s advising the Seattle Seahawks.”
But Alfie, perhaps wanting to move the scene forward, said, “It sounds good enough to me. We obviously have a man of faith here. ...”
End of scene. When the actors left and the passengers resumed tucking into their steaks, salmon fillets or chicken breasts, Diaz leaned over to Vosch and gave him grief about dissing the 49ers.
“I’m not going to get off this train alive,” Vosch said, smiling.
As it turned out, everyone did exit the train alive as it pulled back into the Oakdale station shortly after 10 p.m. Everyone except the character Kat, whose extended, length-of-the-train-car death scene was played to the hilt. The murderer got her or his just deserts, not long after dessert was served.
You’ll have to take the train yourself to discover the culprit. You might also discover that the romance of train travel, believed dead, chugs along slowly but steadily, like a beating heart.